Apple’s latest cat is out the bag and ready to roar. But should you upgrade and is it worth the cash? We’ve been living with the new OS since its first beta outing earlier in the year to find out. And now that the final version is out and ready to download we can give you the lowdown.
The purpose of Lion, as we see it, is to start you on a path that will ultimately end with the holy matrimony of the iOS mobile operating system and the Mac OS X desktop operating system.
Apple know that dropping people straight in at the deep end doesn’t work and so they have to educate along the way. That way when you do finally get to the end of this journey you are happy to be there, rather than wondering where it all went wrong. With that in mind Mac OS X Lion feels like the middle part of that journey, the Empire Strikes Back if you like, leading to a greater finale.
We say that because there are bits of the old and bits of the new, with Apple not yet fully forcing you to change the way you work. You’ll quickly find there are plenty of ways to do the same thing as Apple tries to not alienate the Mac OS X user, while bringing iPad owners keen to move to Mac something familiar.
Mac OS X Lion is like the iPad
If you use an iPad you’ll very quickly notice some of the same functionality here. The main features (remember Apple is promising some 250+ updates) are instant on, full screen apps, Launchpad, natural scroll, Mail and Safari, Versions, and Gestures.
“Scroll direction: natural” is a strange one and one that we keep trying but have so far failed to get used to. The premise is that it moves the page like you are dragging it with your finger, rather than scrolling up and down in the conventional computer sense. So in a document, swiping up the trackpad will move you down the document. This is exactly the way that touchscreen devices work, yet it still feels alien on a computer.
One thing that doesn’t help is the scroll bar at the side document/window then appears to be heading in a different direction to your swipe action. You can turn it off if you’d rather stick with the existing scrolling action.
Lion, like iOS, loves gestures. If you haven’t got yourself a Magic Trackpad it is probably time to invest. Forget this idea of using a mouse for clicking and pointing your way around the screen, it’s all about powering everything with your finger(s). We’ve all used two-finger scrolling for some time, but now you get more three and four finger actions joining the existing set you had in Snow Leopard.
On the point and click front there is tap to click, secondary click, look up (double tap with three fingers to look up a word), and three finger drag. On the scroll and zoom front there is zoom in and out with two fingers (basically pinch to zoom) smart zoom (double tap like you do on iOS) and rotate with two fingers as before.
Then there is two finger swipe between pages, four finger swipe between apps in full screen mode, four fingers up to reveal mission control, four fingers down to reveal App Expose, three fingers and a thumb clasped to reveal Launchpad, and then unclasped to reveal the desktop.
In practice most are easy to remember and we’ve found most to be helpful. Where it gets confusing is that they only work on the apps that have had them programmed in. So smart zoom will work on Apple’s Safari (which is standard on Mac OS X Lion) but not with Chrome as Google hasn’t added that feature yet. The new gestures also help navigation around Lion because it work slightly differently, so swiping from app to app becomes part of the natural navigation of the OS.
With Mac OS X Lion, Apple clearly believes the idea of a folder where you store your apps and access it by pressing Shift+Command+A, or through Finder, is boring. It wants something a little more iPad-like and so we get Launchpad, a home for your apps that’s quickly accessed by clicking on an icon on your dock or by using that magic clasping motion we’ve just mentioned.
First off it’s going to be a mess with your apps all over the place in no real order and, like iOS, no real way of quickly organising them without spending 10 minutes dragging app icons around your screen. Like the iPad you can put apps in folders and like the iPad there is a limit to how many apps you can put in said folders - 32.
Download new apps from the App Store and they appear in Launchpad automatically. Delete them from Launchpad and they are deleted. Moving forward it should be easy to manage, but it’s not such a friendly process with the legacy apps you already have. Of course, you might already be one stage ahead of Launchpad, and if you use Spotlight to find and open apps then that works exactly as it did.
Once you have got yourself sorted it is a quick and easy way to launch your apps and access those beyond the ones that you store on your dock. But it’s by no means any quicker than doing it via the Applications folder, and by no means easier given that you can’t easily sort or manage the apps. In fact it becomes more of a drag once you fill up one page as that involves another swipe, when Apple’s original way of accessing apps - i.e., via a folder - was simple.
Annoyingly you can’t add document folders to Launchpad, it’s for launching apps only. Clicks and swipes aside, it also makes you start to wonder (see opening gambit) why we’ve still got a desktop other than to dump files on as a work area?
Instant On and Resume
The modern day Mac has always had instant on and here it is no different. Shut the lid on your laptop, open it back up again and it is there waiting for you to get back to work. None of this going into sleep mode, no hibernation stuff, it just works. How does this affect battery life? Well it doesn’t really. Of course if you leave it in this status it will eventually run out of battery, but the battery drain shouldn’t give you too much issue.
Mac OS X Lion takes this one stage further by offering a resume feature too. If you shut down your Mac and opt for resume (it’s a tick box) all the apps that you had running will be reopened on start up. That’s incredibly handy after a software update, or if you’re just a creature of habit that always uses the same apps.
Full screen apps
Like many of the new features of Lion it is new, but only if your application supports it. Here Apple apps like Mail, Safari, and iPhoto get full screen support so you can use them like you do on the iPad or iPhone. There are other apps appearing in the Mac App Store and we’ve been playing with those too, but where it gets confusing is that some apps - the Google Chrome browser for example - have the icon to go full screen (two little arrows in the top right hand corner), but while they go full screen, it is not the same as Apple’s full screen mode.
When you do push apps full screen they of course instantly dominate the screen zoning out everything else. For Mail users that means no nipping off to the desktop to drag in an attachment for example, or for Safari users no dragging off an image to save it. It means that you are using those apps in isolation. All that processing power and you're zoned in on checking your email.
You can have a number of apps in full screen mode and switch between them with the appropriate swipe, so it acts a little like Spaces. On a smaller screen, this means you can have a full browser window, then swipe to a full iCal window, then over to a full Mail window, for example, without touching the Dock. In full screen you don't get access to the Dock, it remains hidden, but you can jump to Mission Control with the appropriate gesture, or swiping back to the Desktop.
We've found that some third-party apps lose their full screen option (in the view menu) if they had one previously, so working with full screen may well take some time to get completely realised, but so far we've found it useful.
Mail and Safari, iCal, Address Book
If you’ve used an iPad, and more specifically its email and browser then you’ll feel right at home here. In fact so at home you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve just bolted on a keyboard to your iPad. Mail has had an overhaul to be virtually identical to the iPad app complete with left-hand mail list right-hand preview pane. There is an option to see your mailboxes, but this is hidden by default when you start the app. Messages are threaded, icons are similar. It’s the same experience.
Likewise for Safari - although you do get Adobe Flash - it’s very similar in its approach. New here is Reading List feature that lets you collect web pages to read later. It’s a really nice feature for those that constantly find stories they want to read but don’t have the time right there and then. Click Add page and it goes in a queue that can then be sorted by all or unread. Sadly you still need an internet connection, as it doesn’t cache the page for offline viewing.
iCal essentially offers the same information as before, and on upgrading carried over our existing calendars without issue. However, it has been stylised in a way that reflects the iPad's calendar, with mock leather dressing and ripped page stubs. It's a striking contrast to the slick lines presented elsewhere, making it look a little dated on what is a progressive operating system. We wish we had the option to switch it to match the rest of the visuals.
Address Book has never been the most sophisticated of apps on OS X and yes, it looks like a book. We're not huge fans of the visuals, as like iCal, it sort of jars with the sophisticated minimalist design elsewhere in Lion. It just looks a little dated and eccentric.
Versions and Auto Save
Like the iPad the idea of having to save anything has also been removed if you are using the right app. Mac OS X Lion now automatically saves stuff for you allowing you to see those revisions as time goes on every hour on the hour as well as tracking the history of a document. It’s a nice idea but unless you are using the right software it won’t be relevant.
Mac OS X Lion is nothing like the iPad
For all its attempts to be like the iPad, Mac OS X Lion is also very much a desktop operating system. Apple has introduced a number of features here including AirDrop, a new tweaked look, Mission Control, greater networking support, greater control of Time Machine, new UNIX options and Lion Server elements too.
A new look
It’s a new OS so that means a new look. A quick glance and you won’t notice. Apple are good at that, but on closer examination there are changes to be found with the design. In is a more square look, out are the blue bubbles that looked “oh so cute”. But it’s not just about more rectangular confirmation buttons.
Scroll bars have been given the boot too with them appearing when you interact with a window and then quickly disappearing when you don’t.
The Finder menus are more grey and muted rather than the bright colourful affair they are in Snow Leopard and overall across the board it’s a lot more minimalist.
One for the office bunch that like to share stuff and haven’t got around to or don’t trust services like Dropbox.
Load it up, search for nearby colleagues and fire over the file via an ad-hoc network you’ve created with your wireless connection. You don’t need to be on a wireless network or connected to the Internet for it to work and the whole experience is easy. It is completely the opposite kind of thinking to Google’s Chrome OS.
If you use Snow Leopard currently then chances are you swear by Expose and its ability to scatter the pages you are working on so you can quickly find the right one. Mission Control in Mac OS X tries to take this to the next level, however for us ends up being a muddle and almost a deal breaker.
You see, app windows are now clustered together. That’s fine if you’ve only got a single window open in that app, but if you are working on multiple spreadsheets, or Word documents or image files trying to find the right file window is now a lot slower, especially if they look the same.
Additionally to try and confuse matters, you’ve then got management of your full screen apps, and Spaces (surprisingly still present). All this for the new Mac OS X user is probably going to be a bit too much. It can very quickly end up in frustration trying to find the file you want.
Time Machine and other bits and bobs
It’s not all user interface and front facing tweaks. Mac OS X Lion brings plenty of other treats for the geeks too.
OS X Lion includes a built-in restore partition, allowing you to repair or reinstall OS X without the need for discs, for example, as well as use of the Safari browser when in restore mode if you need to access Apple support pages. Then there are virtualisation options for those looking to run different versions of Mac OS X on the same machine (developers you know you want this).
Beyond that you’ll get Low Power Wake options for services such as file sharing, backup, and more without the need to turn on the monitor or attached USB devices and plenty of other geeky stuff that makes this a worthy of being called a desktop upgrade.
If you own a Mac for £21 this is a no brainer and Apple know that. It’s not the Microsoft approach of charging you £200 for an operating system that makes you think about upgrading, it’s the Apple approach of getting to you change the way you use your computer and then you’ll be more prone to future ideas and future products like the iPad, or a new MacBook Air with a big shiny touchpad for all those gestures.
As we said at the beginning this is Apple’s Empire Strikes Back, pushing us to an operating system that is more akin to the iPad and less like the traditional desktop than we've seen before.
For some that will be very welcomed. There are some really handy features in here and we can see why some will love the full screen apps while others will hate them and the need to use Apple’s products to get the most out of those features until others update their software.
Overall the improvements will be welcomed. The OS is as stable as you would expect and the performance is as good as Snow Leopard, but this being day 1, we're sure there will be some hiccups, especially if you use a lot of third-party apps.
It's £20.99 in the UK and that's unlikely to break the bank - you're an Apple owner after all. Ultimately Apple has created an OS that tries to appeal to both new and traditional users and at times that doesn’t work. We get the feeling Apple knows that too, which is why there are multiple ways of doing things.
It’s by no means Apple’s Vista, but it’s by no means a work of “genius” either.